|"HOW, LIEUTENANT, CAN YOU BE SURE WHICH IS THE ACTUAL MURDER WEAPON?"|
*I'm not suggesting, by the way, that you skip the first half hour of the show. You'll miss a lot of great lines that way, such as Perry explaining to Paul why they can't be arrested for burglary when they''re breaking into a suspect's office after hours: first, they didn't break anything to get in, and second, you have to take something for it to be burglary, and Perry only wants to get a look at what's in those files. Stick to sleuthing, Paul, and leave the law to Perry.
As I've said before, we don't really know much about Perry, Della and Paul. We know that Perry lives alone, that he lives in an apartment, and that even when he's home he reads his law books. We suspect that he and Della have a closer relationship than most employers and employees, but we never see them out socially unless they're taking a break from working on a case. We figure Della doesn't have any other man in her life; who'd ever put up with the kind of hours she keeps at the office? We know Paul has an eye for the trim ankle, from which we can infer he's not married either, and we know Perry's his biggest client, but beyond that? Nothing. For that matter, we don't know much about Hamilton Burger, either. Is he married? And if so, how does his wife cope with him losing every single case he tries against Mason?
In our serialized era of television, shows tend to get so wrapped up in the private lives of the lead characters, their backstories and their continuing dramas and their evolutionary processes, that they forget Shakespeare's maxim: the play's the thing. And once the play begins, once the participants have entered the squared circle of the courtroom, that's when things start cooking, when the panoply of human drama plays out. One witness after another lays out the case against the defendant, who looks desperately at Mason: "He's twisting my words," she might say, or "I never said that!" or "I know I should have told you before, but I was afraid you wouldn't take my case!"*
*Whenever his client pulls that one, you can almost see the adding machine clicking away in Perry's head, wondering how much that's going to add to the bill when all's said and done. "Let's see, that's $10,000 for lying, $5,000 for failing to tell me about the other woman, $2,750 for Paul's expenses in traveling to Mexico to check out a false alibi. . . Looks as if Della's going to get that new fur for Christmas after all."
Things start to look bleak for Perry and his client, and you can see it in Burger's smug expression, the satisfied way he confers with Lieutenant Tragg to head off one of Mason's surprise moves. At last, I'm going to beat him! And then, with no warning, the tide begins to turn. Maybe Paul's rushed in a last-minute piece of advice, or Perry's noticed something that a previous witness said; whatever, the lightbulb goes on over Perry's head, and suddenly he launches two, three, four questions at the witness, who begins to stammer and sweat. Burger, seeing that certain victory starting to slip away, desperately launches objection after objection, most of which are shot down by the judge who seems as curious as we are to find out what Mason's up to. (Occasionally, the judge takes a little dig at Burger while he's overruling his objection, which makes it even better.)
If I make this sound too simplistic, I don't mean to, because what Perry Mason does isn't simple at all. To keep a formulaic program like this going for nine successful years, continuing to entertain audiences for week after week, takes a good staff of writers to come up with scripts, and an exceptional cast to execute them. Raymond Burr so inhabited the role of Mason that he became a favorite speaker at law conventions and meetings of bar associations. He infuses his character with an indefatigable desire for justice, and an unwavering belief in his client; even if he thinks that client has lied or withheld information, he's going to make damn sure that Burger, et al don't get a whiff of that doubt. I've referred in the past to Mason as a single-combat warrior, a solitary figure standing in front of the bench, prepared to engage in a battle to the death in behalf of an innocent person. In Mason's hands, or rather, in Raymond Burr's hands, the law becomes the most noble of professions, Mason the most distinguished of its practitioners.
It's quite a legacy to leave, not only the entertainment value of the series but the portrayal of the man in it, for Perry Mason is one of the most enjoyable programs on television in any era, and Perry Mason is one of the most heroic characters the medium has produced. Forget the lack of development, the characters frozen in time year after year, unchanging from season to season. Ignore the flaws and imperfections which never seem to manifest themselves in our heroes. Concentrate instead on that courtroom scene, the thirty minutes that close out the episode, the most entertaining half hour on television.
This post is part of the the 2015 Summer of Me-TV Classic Television Blogathon. Click here to view the lineup of all the great posts in this blogathon.